Disclaimer: Alcoholism and addiction runs through my family. And while I have not been in AA groups for myself, I have been in OA groups (I have a serious food addiction issue leading to me way just over 250 lbs. by my 20s and worked incredibly hard to lose half of it by my 30s… I comfortably rest between 130-140 since then), Al Anon groups and children of Vietnam Vets (aka… flashbacks, gambling, alcohol and drugs) groups. Having said that, while this didn’t cause any triggers because at this point that part of my family history is a numb spot (other things still definitely are trigger points), I come at certain depictions of this story with a different lens.
I am not saying any one way works for everyone or endorsing anything, but I definitely have a biased in this area. I to make that clear in my biased before anyone proceeds further. I wrote this yesterday. Woke up at night and rewrote it and tweaked it this morning. I am not trying to take anything away from anyone’s journey. It is a personal, tough and life-long journey for anyone. I can only talk through my experiences. And when we read, I believe we all bring those experiences to our reading. To me, I felt writing this review, without discussing my experiences would be an unfair review. I am open to respectful discussion, questions and concerns. I am not open to attacks on my personal life and experiences.
Thank you to HarperCollins/HarperTeen and Edelweiss for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
This is a very hard review for me to write. On the one hand there are many things about it for me to like and then there are a two, or three things that I can’t abide by. A couple of them, unfortunately are going to be very difficult to discuss without spoiling parts of the end but I’m going to try to do so in very general terms.
Let’s start with the premise and what works. The First True Thing by Claire Needell, at its heart tackles very heavy and realistic struggles for teenagers across the country: peer pressure, toxic friendship circles, substance abuse, underage sexual pornography/sexual promiscuity and being trapped in abusive relationships.
Marcelle becomes addicted to alcohol as a teenager while her circle of friend begin slipping down a slope of drug addiction, both dealing and imbibing in drug addiction (cocaine in this instance). During this time, Hannah, also gets caught up in a ring of sexual pornography run by the older brother of her friend and a man who runs a nationwide scheme.
This scheme is aimed at men who pay to watch live streams of girls perform sexual acts. It is insinuated that since Hannah is underage, she is only undressing, and performing crude acts with herself online to make money that funds her and her boyfriend’s drug addiction.
Luckily for Marcelle, although she understandably doesn’t see it at the time, she has a horrific bike crash that breaks her neck and lands her in the hospital. Her blood alcohol level is through the roof. Her parents take immediate action and send her to a local support group (not AA) for teenagers.
Although Marcelle tries very hard to stay out the way of her old friends, Hannah tells her about the new activities she is taking part in and just a couple days later texts Marcelle and asks her to cover for her. She doesn’t want to go home that night. Despite knowing honesty is key to recovery, Marcelle keeps Hannah’s trust and the next day finds out Hannah is missing.
At school no one knows who to trust, who to believe or what has happened. A day later Hannah’s phone has been phone is found with drug residue and multiple fingerprints. Everyone knows more than they are saying. But if Hannah comes home there are consequences for everyone. If Hannah is in trouble, they are risking her life.
Complicated even further for Marcelle, is her path to recovery. Accountability, her goals and complete honesty are all key tenets to recovery. Does she follow them; which makes her feel selfish because she could hurt so many? Or does she follow her path and save herself? That you will have to find out by reading the book. Here is where things go down hill for me.
This recovery group. No way. No how. While I have been in AA groups that are run by recovering addicts and sponsors, anonymity being a key and utmost rule, I have also heard them repeat time and again that anonymity extends up until one is a danger to themselves or others. It does not extend to confession of a violent crimes. I have heard of times when someone has admitted to petty crimes, but even those were listed in the eighth and ninth step:
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Secondly, there is a definite hierarchy and bullying that is happening within the center group that Marcelle attends which is DEFINITELY NOT OK. Yes, this is addressed and corrected but not until THE VERY END of the book and with not nearly enough detail. Too little. Too late. The damage that can be done by this kind of bullying. The way that
Cyndi (another teen struggling with addiction) uses her “power” over the rest of the group to tear them down while she often prances and preens around the group for 3/4 of the books is NOT OK to not have it fixed in a page.
Kevin, the only adult and qualified counselor, doesn’t even stay on ground for some group sessions. His one interaction with Marcelle is beyond in appropriate, profanity laced and unsupportive. I’m not saying tough love isn’t needed. I had tough love when going through OA. I was never once cursed at, screamed at or bullied in that form. I was never belittled. I was called out on my bullshit.
Like Marcelle had to pass her Accountability Letter and show she was ready to truly set her goals by demonstrating step 3 and completing step 4:
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him (never “God as a religious figure” – in fact I remember my sponsor telling me it could be your couch, your cat- whatever you needed your higher power to be to turn over your will and life to– again as it says– what you needed God to be at that time- until you developed a spiritual understanding of any kind for yourself)
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
However that process, while incredibly difficult, incredibly long and incredibly painful was supported by my sponsor and my group (and my sponsor at the time was about 25 years older than me and had been in recovery for a solid decade AND I was seeing a psychiatrist and therapist that specializes in childhood trauma, addiction and eating disorders). Again, yes, I was called out on my bullshit. But I was never talked to the way Marcelle was and again it is hard for me to go into specifics without spoiling large parts of the story.
Next, and again this is going to be real general due to spoilers, but one character literally uses the group for self-gain, manipulates the whole system of the group for their own gain and that is outright disgusting. Fiction or not that should never be suggested. It shouldn’t be allowed or ok. It isn’t right. And the groups response? This is an anonymous group. It is on that person to tell what they have said. No one else can do so. This is not ok.
Lastly, and again this one is my opinion. There is a clear opinion of the author that alcoholics can recover without abstinence. Maybe they can. I’ve never seen it happen. Whether this is a teenager reading this book or an adult. Man are you putting thoughts in people’s heads that are awfully dangerous. Really dangerous. I remember, as a teenager, going out with my uncle who was a violent alcoholic. And he ordered a beer and I literally started shaking. And he told me not to worry. He even said my Aunt said he was playing Russian roulette living like that. Trying to just drink casually after 20 years of sobriety. It didn’t work out for him. I’ll leave it at that and again, maybe some can. He couldn’t and from my experience, not just with my family but from all the groups I’ve been in and all that I’ve seen across the country. All the people I’ve heard utter the phrase “I can handle it.” Maybe they could for a month, a year… eventually they couldn’t.
This is an irresponsible idea to put out there for parents, adults and teenagers. I’m very saddened that this was put out there. The First True Thing started out so incredibly well. Even when we get to the center. I kept waiting for someone – especially when we first meet Kevin- to grab a hold of that group and stop what was happening. The book had a chance to tell an even more powerful message and instead it did the exact opposite.